Should YOU wear a face mask to protect yourself against COVID-19?
Some politicians insist it is useless. Some health authorities advise us to wear it only if you are sick. Others demand you wear one in public at all times.
What really is the evidence for, or against, wearing a face mask to protect against COVID-19?
This story was originally posted in April 2020, and has been updated due to second / third waves affecting many countries.
Face Mask : What Kind Do You Have?
When people say face mask, they generally mean the 3-ply surgical mask, although some may be talking about fashion masks, or even the N95 respirator.
Fashion masks are usually made from washable cotton and are reusable, but they often lack a filter. The N95 respirator, on the other hand, is designed to filter 95% of particles with a median diameter of 0.3 microns.
For the purpose of this article, we are going to talk exclusively about the 3-ply surgical / medical mask, which has three layers – each with very specific functions :
- an outer hydrophobic layer, which repels water, blood and body fluids,
- a middle filter layer that is designed to filter bacteria, and
- an inner hydrophilic layer, which absorbs water, sweat and spit
The 3-ply surgical mask is the most common type of face mask used in China and most of Asia, to protect against SARS and now, COVID-19.
Is The Face Mask Effective Against COVID-19?
Now, to be clear – studies are still underway to determine if the humble 3-ply face mask is effective against COVID-19. But here is what we know so far…
COVID-19 Is Generally NOT Airborne
First, we should understand that COVID-19 is generally not airborne, and primarily spreads by droplets, which are significantly larger than the virus itself and fall within 1-2 meters.
COVID-19 droplets can, therefore, be blocked by 3-ply masks or N95 respirators even though the virus itself is smaller than the filter holes!
Face Masks Prevent Face Touching
You can get infected by COVID-19 if you touch your face after touching a contaminated surface with your hand. Hand washing can prevent that, but people often forget to do it, and it is human nature to touch our own faces.
Wearing a face mask helps to prevent face touching, so even if we forget to wash our hands, there is less risk of infecting ourselves with COVID-19.
Face Masks Worked In Asia + Czech Republic
The evidence is strong in many Asian countries, including China, as well as the Czech Republic, that face masks are effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
The Czechs are so enthusiastic about their experience, they created this video to spread word that face masks work, even if they are not 3-ply!
Many Asian countries, including China, Singapore and Malaysia, require their citizens to wear one whenever they leave the house.
The Asian and Czech experiences are backed up by a CDC-sponsored study, which showed that surgical masks are as effective as N95 respirators in preventing influenza infections amongst healthcare workers.
This study is important because influenza is a similarly-sized respiratory virus that spreads by droplets too. So it makes sense that face masks would be similarly effective against COVID-19.
Why Did WHO / CDC Recommend Against Wearing Face Masks?
Certain health authorities like the WHO or CDC recommended against wearing face masks to protect against COVID-19, because they feared that :
- people would gain a false sense of security, and not protect themselves adequately in other ways like washing hands and avoiding crowds.
- people would accidentally infect themselves by wearing or taking them off wrongly.
There is also the consideration that when there is limited supply, 3-ply face masks and N95 respirators should be reserved for healthcare workers who have much greater need of them.
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Should You Wear A Face Mask To Protect Against COVID-19?
No Community Spread
If there is no community spread of COVID-19 in your country, there is NO NEED to wear a face mask.
As long as health authorities can quickly trace and isolate contacts for testing, the virus is “not in the wild”, and you are very unlikely to be infected.
Keep your face masks in reserve. Using them now could mean you run out of face masks when you actually need them.
There Is Community Spread
Once there is community spread, all bets are off. The COVID-19 coronavirus is problematic because patients are contagious long before they show symptoms.
ANYONE can be COVID-19 positive, even if they don’t have symptoms. That includes you and your family, not just strangers you meet on the street.
To protect everyone, this is the time to start wearing a face mask.
In fact, everyone should be forced to wear a face mask, because it would help prevent asymptomatic / presymptomatic persons from spreading the coronavirus.
During Home Quarantine
One way to reduce the need for face masks is a home quarantine / restricted movement / lockdown.
You do NOT need to wear a face mask while you are sheltering at home with your family.
You only need to wear a face mask during the limited occasions you leave your home to purchase food and other essential supplies.
And you should certainly wear a face mask while accepting food deliveries or parcels from a delivery person.
Don’t Rely Solely On Your Face Mask Against COVID-19!
Now, opinions are definitely shifting towards the widespread adoption of face masks to protect against COVID-19. However, it is important to note that a face mask alone cannot protect you from COVID-19.
You still need to adopt safe practices that health authorities have been advocating to prevent COVID-19 :
- Avoid suspected cases or disease hotpots, like hospitals, if possible!
- Avoid public events and crowds
- Keep our hands clean with soap or hand sanitiser
- Keep our homes, offices, vehicles, etc. clean
- If you need to wear a surgical mask, make sure you put it on and remove it properly!
- Wash your food with water (and soap) after purchase and before preparation
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